The 1960 Election
As Americans approached the 1960 presidential election, life was good. Americans reveled in their music and the stardom of movie icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, and they enjoyed the new medium of television.
Many assumed that since Eisenhower had been a popular president, Vice President Richard Nixon would easily win the 1960 election as the Republican nominee. To beat Nixon, Democrats selected a dashing senator from Massachusetts who was certainly groomed if not destined for the presidency. John F. Kennedy (known by his famous initials JFK) had a successful and wealthy father (Joseph P. Kennedy, who had served in the New Deal) and maternal grandfather (John F. Fitzgerald, also known as Honey Fitz, who had been the mayor of Boston many years before).
The migration of East Germans escaping into the West threatened the stability of East Germany. On the night of August 19, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected as a barricade. President Kennedy commented “Democracy may not be perfect but at least we don't have to build walls to keep our people in.”
Although Kennedy had the intellect, connections, charm, and World War II heroism (the rescue of his PT-109 crew off the Solomon Islands was well known), he faced certain challenge as the first Irish Catholic to seek executive office. Choosing a Southern running mate — Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas — balanced the Democratic ticket.
In a series of debates, the first ever to be televised, the candidates squared off. Their race remained close, but most agreed that Kennedy seemed much more poised on camera, which emphasized Nixon's haggard appearance. That finesse paid off at the polls, where Kennedy edged ahead in a very narrow defeat of Richard Nixon. In fact, Kennedy garnered 49.7 percent of the popular vote to Nixon's 49.6, though he clearly won the electoral votes needed (303 to Nixon's 219).
At forty-three, Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected (Theodore Roosevelt was slightly younger when he became president, but he had not been elected). In his dynamic inaugural address, Kennedy challenged his fellow Americans with “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” He energized the nation with his idea of a new frontier, and subsequently inspired a generation to public service, particularly with the Peace Corps, which rallied professional and skilled Americans to work in developing nations.
These initiatives served Kennedy's clear vision of volunteerism, freedom, and equality for all — as well as technological achievement, as he pledged that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. With his stylish wife Jacqueline and the couple's young children, Kennedy rose to near-royal status in the public's eye.